Iraq lawmakers grant 7-day extension to finish charter

Posted in Iraq | 16-Aug-05 | Author: Dexter Filkins| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iraqi Shiites protesting today in Mosul against a proposal for Kurdish autonomy.
Iraqi Shiites protesting today in Mosul against a proposal for Kurdish autonomy.
Still deadlocked after days of negotiations, Iraq's leaders decided Monday to give themselves another week to agree on a new constitution and resolve a series of fundamental disagreements over the future and identity of this fractious land.

After meeting for several hours inside the Green Zone, a group of senior Iraqi leaders told the National Assembly that they were unable to resolve a number of critical issues, including the role of Islam, the rights of women, the sharing of the country's vast oil wealth and whether to grant the majority Shiites their own semi-independent region in the south.

Minutes before midnight, the leaders of the Assembly agreed to amend the interim constitution and allow themselves until Aug. 22 to strike a deal. There were proclamations of brotherhood and pledges to work together, but the leaders said that ultimately their differences had been too vast to bridge in the allotted time.

"They need time," Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said after the Assembly vote. "I think next week will be enough." Despite the decision to push back the deadline for the constitution, the date set for the nationwide referendum on the new charter, Oct. 15, and the full-term parliamentary elections, on Dec. 15, stood unchanged.

The failure to break the impasse came despite the furious efforts of the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, who huddled with Iraqi leaders and proposed compromises throughout the day. The Americans had been eager to have the Iraqis stick to the Aug. 15 deadline, in part because of concern that the guerrilla insurgency would take advantage of any stalemate.

As if to underscore the American concerns, a mortar shell, apparently fired by insurgents, exploded just shy of the Green Zone.

Asked before the postponement about the challenges of bringing the Sunni minority on board, the national security adviser of the interim government, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, said negotiators were making an effort to obtain the best deal possible.

Shiite leaders had said they were considering asking the National Assembly to approve the document without the agreement of Sunni leaders.

Such a move would probably have provoked the Sunnis, whose participation in the political process is seen as crucial in the effort to marginalize the guerrilla insurgency they dominate.

If the new deadline is not met and the interim constitution is not successfully amended, the law would appear to require dissolving the National Assembly and holding new elections.

Shiite and Kurdish leaders said late Sunday that they were discussing that possibility but that they hoped to avoid it. "That is the worst option, and we want to avoid it at all costs," said Ali al-Dabbagh, one of the Shiite leaders charged with writing the new constitution.

American officials here had been pushing the Iraqis to meet the Monday deadline, arguing that any delay in the political process, devised to culminate in democratic elections in December, could strengthen the insurgency.

A stalemate could also stall the Bush administration's plans to begin reducing the number of troops here as early as next spring.

The deadlock reflected a lack of consensus on basic questions underlying the nation's identity, a consensus that has largely eluded Iraq since it was carved from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

The disagreements run almost entirely along ethnic and sectarian lines, reflecting the deep divisions among majority Shiites and the Kurdish and Sunni minorities.

One of the thorniest of the unresolved issues is whether to grant to the country's Shiite majority an autonomous region in the south.

Shiite leaders are demanding that nine provinces in southern Iraq - half of the provinces in the country - be allowed to form a largely self-governing region akin to the Kurdish autonomous region in the north.

The leaders of the Sunni population staunchly oppose the Shiite demands, contending that if the Shiites and the Kurds were both granted wide powers of self-rule, there would be little left of the Iraqi state.

The issue of Shiite autonomy is especially significant because the richest oil fields are in the extreme south of the country.

Indeed, some Sunni leaders say the Shiite demand for self-rule is largely a cover for hoarding the bulk of Iraq's oil revenues.

On Sunday, an agreement on sharing oil revenues between the central and regional governments fell apart, with the Shiites demanding more control.

Under prodding from Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, the Shiites had agreed to hold off on demands for regional autonomy in exchange for a mechanism in the constitution that would allow them to achieve it later.

Under the formula favored by the Shiites, provinces could set up autonomous regions if they secured majority votes of their people, the provincial assemblies and the National Assembly.

But Sunni leaders rejected the proposal, saying it would only slow down, but not significantly hamper, the Shiite drive for self-rule. While accepting Khalilzad's basic formula, the Sunnis said they would insist on two-thirds majorities in all the voting.

"If we accept federalism, the country will be finished," said Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni leader on the constitutional committee.